Putting Patients First

Written By: James Alexander

Interviewed by: Dana Blickensderfer 

Dale Jackson is a jack of all trades— a seasoned business owner, a fierce advocate for medical cannabis. But, he’s also a loving father and was one of the few people on-site when SB 16 was signed into law, the amendment that officially added AIDS, autism, Tourette’s, and more to the medicinal cannabis registry. This bill allows patients suffering from these conditions access to cannabis oil to ease their symptoms.

We were able to sit down with him for an intimate talk about how the battle for cannabis care can not only be fought from the inside but also won.

Treevana: Thank you, Dale. It’s such an exciting time to create and share content in the medical cannabis space, and you were on a shortlist of advocates that we were eager to touch base with for this issue. So, you’re a devout champion for medical cannabis. Can you tell us a little bit as to why?

Dale: Well, the story goes back over five years to mid-2014. I was trying to help a friend of mine who had a daughter who suffered from seizures. The treatment process that his doctors set out for his family didn’t seem reasonable. I’d heard that cannabis could help improve seizures, so I started researching and moving in that direction. Within a week of her first dose, his daughter experienced her first week of being seizure-free.

Treevana: Wow.

Dale: I spent the next 12 months helping him and his family get on their feet. Leveraging my political affiliations for support. I learned more about what medical cannabis was, especially medical cannabis oil. That’s when I learned about the potential benefits for patients in the autism spectrum world. It was 2015 here in the state of Georgia when we passed our very first bill, which allowed for the possession of oil for a list of conditions.

Treevana: What was that moment like for you and the families? To see that you were advocating for those qualifying conditions?

Dale: It was more painful that we didn’t add them in 2016. That was the one year everything went wrong, which is when autism wasn’t on the list. There’s no other way to describe it other than the most painful moments of my political life.

We were in the middle of negotiations with leadership with the Senate, and this was the very last day of session signing day. We exhausted all of our efforts and connections trying to make something happen, including storming Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle’s office with the media news cameras behind us. I was there beating on the door, demanding a meeting with him.

We’re not professional lobbyists or politicians, but this set the course for the next four years, ironically, because it was a very controversial meeting that I was demanding with Casey Cagle. Surprisingly, it was the start of a significant relationship between him. He agrees to meet with me and roughly four other family members on the busiest day at the State Capitol. I felt that while he was somewhat open to it, he was still admittedly brand-new to what medical cannabis oil was in the first place.

What we didn’t know was because this was technically year one of a two-year session, technically the last day of the session could have gone on for hours and hours past midnight.

It was roughly at about 11:49 pm on the last day of the session when Senator Mike Dugan walked out onto the floor. He looked up in the gallery and he motioned for me to come down. I jumped right over the rows of chairs to get down there.

Treevana: It’s like a ‘now or never’ moment.

Dale: Right. Of course, the people in control of the gallery were freaking out because I was jumping over rows of chairs and yelling that I was banned from the gallery, but I didn’t care because I wasn’t going back up there. I was going down to the floor no matter what.

So, I ran down the stairs, and Senator Mike Dugan is waiting outside the Senate chambers for me. He hands me this piece of paper and tells me this is what is being presented in the caucus. He says, “you’ve got 30 seconds to agree to it or disagree to it, and whatever you want to do, that’s what I’ll do.” He said they’ve agreed to add autism, however, in exchange for adding autism, they’re demanding that we reduce the level of THC allowed in the oil from 5% down to 3%. I was faced with making a tough decision that would impact thousands of other patients in Georgia that needed a higher level of THC. It hit me like a ton of bricks.  I’ve never experienced a moment that I felt such a kick in the gut.

Our bill never came up. That’s what changed everything for me. That year, that night, that experience. I vowed from that point forward that I would never just sit back and wait on someone else to act. I’m going directly to leadership. I’m putting together a team, and we’re going to get this done. I’m not relying on anybody else. That’s when I developed a great relationship with Bo Butler, the chief of staff for Casey Cagle in 2017, Senator Matt Brass, Senator Mike Dugan, and a few others in the Senate.

Treevana: Mm-hmm. Give and take.

Dale: Up to this point, it had always been Allen Peake working through the House, which left the Senate not knowing what in the world was going on. Allen Peake can work in the House and get everything done at the House, but I’m going to work in the Senate. We’re going to work at both ends and meet in the middle. So, that’s what we did in 2017. We were able to work with leadership in both chambers and add autism to the official list of conditions.

Treevana: Wow. I’m sure the whole year of 2017 was educational on teaching them and the communities why it’s essential.

Dale: There are multiple parts to this whole discussion. There’s the education on what precisely medical cannabis oil is, and then there’s educating the public and the legislature of why it’s beneficial to whatever condition we’re discussing.

Especially with autism, obviously, I’m incredibly passionate about that. I’m really just proud of the fact that Georgia was the second state in the entire country to list autism as a condition covered for medical cannabis officially.

Treevana: That’s huge.

Dale: Shortly after that, we were able to work with some of our friends from Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania was the third state to have it officially listed in the list of conditions.

Treevana: What was the first state?

Dale: Surprisingly, it was Massachusetts.

Treevana: Oh, wow.

Dale: Most people would consider California or Colorado, but Colorado didn’t add autism to the list of conditions until 2019.

Treevana: Speaking on the education side, you’re on the board of Safe Access For Everyone [SAFE]. Can you tell us about this initiative?

Dale: Well, everything has kind of been born out of our experience. There have been plenty of people that want to take advantage of our families. But, on the flip side of that, there have been professional lobbyists who have witnessed the will and drive of all the families involved at the Capitol since 2014. They genuinely want to help.

Through this process, I also got to meet Wesley and Michele Dunn. Michelle writes a lot of newsletters for legislators and Wesley was a legislator in the statehouse for 15 years. But, since we couldn’t afford to pay them anything, they were kind enough to volunteer their advice pro bono. I’ve since developed a great relationship with them.

Now, we can issue licenses and grow medicine here in Georgia. We wanted to do it the right way because for years part of our struggle at the state legislature was officials continually coming back to us and saying, “well, look at this state over there. Look at how horrible it is.” So we’re thinking, ‘the last thing we need here in the state of Georgia is for our licensees to do it the wrong way and get our bill overturned.’

We can’t afford to burn up six years of progress because someone made a mistake. Families are wanting and needing this medicine to take care of their children. We see it as a multifaceted project. Part of our problem here in Georgia is that no-one here has legally grown cannabis for medicine yet.

So, a big part of our objective is to educate. Thanks to Dr. Mark Schwaiger, we were able to take a trip up to Kentucky, Boston, and Montreal and really examine some of the foremost leaders in the cannabis industry. For example, the equipment that handles the climate control was enlightening, and taking a tour of a fantastic facility in Fallston showed us how to do things the right way. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take a lot of pictures because it’s illegal, but we’re working with the commission there to learn how to set standards.

Treevana: How is SAFE going to impact the state of Georgia in the coming years?

Dale: Well, I think that we’re going to play a significant role. Our objective is to set the highest standards possible. What I feel incredibly passionate about when it comes to SAFE is that it’s one thing to set standards on black and white on paper and say, if you do this, if you buy this piece of equipment, if you buy this mechanism, you can produce a safe medicine. And, I agree with that. However, I’m not only a parent who is treating a child, but I’m also a parent who has been developing medicine for other families, and I know what it’s like to answer that phone call at 12:30 a.m. with a frantic single mom whose child is experiencing X, Y, and Z issue.

To her, the world is crumbling, and she just needs someone to answer the phone and put her mind at ease. Unfortunately, that’s what a lot of these investment groups don’t understand.

Treevana: And you can provide a lot of that.

Dale: If they want to carry our SAFE label on their medicine, it’s not just about “did you grow this plant in the best way possible? Did you process this plant in the best way possible?” But once you bottled it and you sold it and you made your profit, did you provide the best possible care to the patient and the caregiver? Did you ensure that level of service? Did you have someone there to answer the phone at 12:30 am? If you think you can just make your profit and wash your hands of the situation after the fact, then you’re in for a rude awakening.

Treevana: Yeah, you’re like a patient liaison for the product.

Dale: Right, exactly. Not everybody can make a safe product, but if you want to get our SAFE label, then you’re going to make sure that you’re there to put that mother’s mind at ease at 12:35 a.m. on a Tuesday.

Treevana: It’s impressive that you’re able to bring the patient voice to light. What are the current challenges with creating cultivation facilities in Georgia?

Dale: Well, I think there’s a multitude of issues. Is it being done smartly? How much money do we invest in growing this product efficiently and safely? At the end of the day, it’s about the families. We can’t afford for these facilities to go out of business once they’re up and running.

The number one issue is we need to plan for is scaling up. Because of the way that we wrote the original legislation, there are two different classes of licenses. There are two licensees for 100,000 square-foot facilities, and there are four licensees for 50,000 square-foot facilities.

On day one, you don’t need to grow 100,000 square feet of plants. You don’t need to grow 50,000 square feet of plants because the only people that are legally going to be able to purchase cannabis oil are the patients on the registry. So, you have to be smart and design a system where you could start off growing maybe just 10,000 square feet of the plant. As the registry grows, the available space is used. Right now, the registry is sitting at around 15,000 patients. As soon as there’s a facility set up around the state where patients can actually buy the oil if they have registered with the state, you’re going to see that registry grow from 15,000 to 30,000 to 50,000 and higher, given the list of conditions that we have approved.

So, businesses are going to need to be able to scale up in an efficient way. We want them to stay in business. We don’t want them to invest $40 million on the front end if they don’t need to.

Treevana: Definitely. You have a unique eye because not only are you on the advocate side as a father and a parent, but you’re also a successful entrepreneur and business owner. Would you say being a public champion for medical cannabis has affected your business positively or negatively?

Dale: I would say that starting out it was more of a negative. I don’t know if it has become positive. I will say, though, over the years it’s kind of become more neutral. Just a few years ago, the average person thought I was advocating for blowing smoke in my eight-year-old son’s face.

They didn’t understand what we were advocating. The average person’s only experience with cannabis is smoking a joint. Then, if they know my son, they can see he is still nonverbal and can’t tie his shoes. He’s obviously not smoking a joint. So, there’s this substantial educational process over the last five years. It doesn’t matter what age group or socio-demographic. If I can adequately communicate with them and just explain what I’m advocating for and what medical cannabis is, I could physically watch their demeanor change in a matter of five minutes.

Treevana: Right. It starts with your personal story.

Dale: It does. Am I happy that I have a severely autistic child? No, I’m not. That’s the total B.S. of parents who talk about this. I know a lot of parents around the world with severely autistic children. No, it’s not a blessing. I feel like that it is my job as a parent, as a Christian— to make the best of every situation I’m faced with in life. However, there’s nothing that says I should be happy that I have a severely autistic child.

There’s nothing that I enjoy more than walking into a room of a 100, 200 people of, let’s just face it, white-haired individuals, and they know nothing about cannabis or even why I’m there. Five minutes into telling my story about my son and our experience, they go from sitting with their arms crossed to tears running down their face.

Treevana: It clicks.

Dale: Then a month later, unfortunately, they’re contacting me on Facebook or Instagram or calling my office and saying, “Hey my daughter’s got cancer, my dad’s got cancer, my brother’s got Alzheimer’s, can you help me?”

Treevana: How are you involved with the West Georgia Autism Foundation?

Dale: Well, that has just been a fantastic opportunity that just kind of dropped in my lap. There’s a group of individuals out of Carrollton, Georgia that all have autistic children, and they’re just all very passionate about educating and helping other families in the West Georgia area. So, they reached out to me and a few others in LaGrange and said, “come and sit on our board.”

Treevana: Ha!

Dale: They were like, “you don’t have to come to every meeting, we just want your opinion. We want your understanding of families.” So, I’ve been able to support them with ideas and we’re really looking to move forward with a few other organizations here in LaGrange and Tripp County. I’ve been very involved in social media worldwide with autistic families.

There’s this saying everybody likes to use “autism awareness,” and I have to be careful because sometimes I can be way too blunt. There’s a portion of what we need to do to make people aware of what autism is, but if you want to make a difference in our world in the lives of real families is to serve families.

Go out and find that 34-year-old single mother that has three children and one is severely autistic and allow her to have fun with some of her friends tomorrow night and provide some respite for her and provide a skilled babysitter for her family, her three kids because she’s been scared to death to allow anyone to watch her son for the last eight years.

If you want to help, do that, but don’t hide behind this vagueness of the label of autism awareness.

Treevana: Do you think that’s what the West Georgia Autism Foundation helps cultivate?

Dale: Yes. That is what I view as my job with them, to keep that at the forefront. We want to bring awareness to events and services that are needed, but at the same time identify the families that we could genuinely serve.

Treevana: Dale, you’re making a difference. I commend you on all the different facets that you are involved in and the causes that you support and are leading. We have one more question.

What’s the number one thing that can be done to change public opinion of medical cannabis in Georgia positively?

Dale: That’s an easy answer. It’s one thing that I have personally seen, not only in my own life but in every individual that I come into contact with across the state of Georgia. The number-one thing that can happen is to see a family member positively affected by the medicine. Once you see that, there is no going back. There’s nothing that will change your opinion faster and more dramatically than that experience.

There have been legislators at the State Capitol in leadership who fought us year after year until their wife, their daughter, or their brother went through chemotherapy.

Dale: And I would say the same thing about autism, about Parkinson’s. When you watch people suffer, when you watch families go days without sleeping. Look at what happened to us. I come home and get to watch for the first time in five years my son take a nap on the couch at 5:30 in the afternoon because he’s tired of going through four hours of therapy at school. I went for five years without watching my child sleep. To see him at peace, just sleeping on the couch. There’s nothing to compare to that to as a dad.

Treevana: That’s incredible. I think we can end it on that note. Thank you so much for your knowledge and insight. Your contributions to Georgia and all the initiatives you’re involved with simply cannot be measured.

Dale: Well, thank you very much, Treevana. I appreciate the efforts that your publication is putting in to help the families.

 

To learn more about Dale Jackson and Safe Access For Everyone [SAFE], please visit SafeAccessUsa.com

About SAFE

SAFE is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit special interest group leading the effort to ensure safe, lab-tested medical cannabis products grown, manufactured, and dispensed using the highest ethical principles are legally available to those who rely on its healing properties.